The military horses that carry America’s heroes to their final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery are living in unsanitary and potentially life-threatening conditions, according to a US Army report reviewed exclusively by CNN, consuming poor-quality feed, suffering from parasites and standing in their own excrement in tiny mud lots scattered with gravel and construction waste.
Two military working horses died unexpectedly within 96 hours of each other in February – one of whom perished from what equine veterinarians say could have been preventable intestinal compaction that was caused by 44 pounds of gravel and sand found in his gut.
The February report, compiled by the US Army’s Public Health Command-Atlantic, found a host of systemic problems with the living conditions of the horses in the 3rd Infantry Regiment, also called the Old Guard, best known for guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The regimental commander’s office requested the Army Public Health inspection after the two deaths, according to the report.
The primary issues are a woeful lack of space, inadequate funding for improvements and routine turnover of the unit’s top leaders, the report found.
Eighteen inspections conducted from 2019 to 2022 rated the sanitary conditions at the pastures, barns and paddocks as “unsatisfactory.” Even though “significant efforts” were made by the soldiers of the Caisson Platoon, who train with and care for the horses daily, the animals’ poor living conditions have persisted for years, primarily “due to [a] lack of funding,” the report found.
The Old Guard, in general, is known to have some of the highest standards of uniform discipline in the Army, as one of its most public-facing units. The regiment is the “official ceremonial unit and escort to the president, and it also provides security for Washington, D.C., in time of national emergency or civil disturbance,” according to its website.
The Caisson Platoon conducts up to eight military funerals per day, depending on the season, according to a senior leader in the Old Guard. Last November, horses in the platoon escorted the casket of the late Secretary of State retired Gen. Colin Powell to his grave site in Arlington cemetery.
This article is based on interviews with more than half a dozen officials and soldiers involved in the horses’ care and on government documents obtained by CNN.
The 60-plus horses of the Old Guard are rotated between two facilities in northern Virginia: a stable facility with three paddocks nestled in the Army base at Fort Myer, barely 2 miles outside Washington, and a 6-acre pasture complex at Fort Belvoir, an Army base about 30 minutes outside the city. Even taken together, the two facilities fall far short of the acre per horse traditionally recommended by equine experts to keep the animals healthy.
The two recent deaths highlight the inherent challenges of running a professional stable in a dense urban environment, decades after the end of the age of regular military use of horses.
“There is substantial history and overwhelming evidence that illustrates the prolonged existence of significant health hazards” for the horses at Fort Myer, the report says.
The question of funding
A senior leader at the regiment said they had been unaware of the systemic issues documented by the report.
“It was very clear that some of the recommendations in there was stuff that now that we were aware of it, we both had the fiscal and legal authority internally to the regiment to take action immediately,” this person said.
But the report cites several unfunded improvement plans, one dating back to 2017. The 18 “unsatisfactory” inspection reports date back to at least 2019.
Senior leadership at the unit points to funding as a key challenge.
“Find me a commander that doesn’t want more money,” said Col. Patrick Roddy, the commander of the Old Guard, when asked whether funding for the herd’s needs was sufficient. “Always things that we can do. These barracks are old,” he added, noting the challenges of making long-term changes to facilities that date back more than a century.
The unit “always would like more land. We’re challenged on land,” he said. “We’re limited by the physicality of the size here.”
Roddy said the Caisson Platoon is his costliest subordinate unit. Out of about 40 platoons, the Caisson herd consumes roughly 20% of the Old Guard’s budget, according to the commander.
“The first thing I would tell you to do is I want to tear down a bunch of buildings over here and expand out the turnout lots,” Roddy said. “I’d like to redo a bunch of these facilities. But on a day-to-day operational funding, horses are not going hungry, horses are not going without medical care, horses are not going without the required supplements. Our prioritization of funding goes to the health and welfare of the horses, and we’re constantly watching that.”
While a senior leader at the Old Guard said making such improvements would require coordination with entities like Army Installation Management Command, Army Contracting Command and engineers under programs like the Army’s Facility Investment Plan, the responsibility for such requests comes from the unit itself.
“The approval process starts with installations and commands submitting a list of facility repair or construction requirements to Army Material Command,” according to Army spokesperson Lt. Col Brandon Kelley, who added that prioritizations are made based on “urgency.” “While the FIP is used to justify funding requirements made to DOD and, ultimately, Congress, the requests themselves are identified, adjudicated and prioritized by the Army.”
For the Fort Myer lots specifically, the senior leader said that over the last two years, the unit had submitted requests for prioritized funding to fix the lots into the Facility Investment Plan. “That wasn’t funded,” the leader added.
According to one estimate compiled by the US Army Corps of Engineers in 2021, the cost to make improvements to the three Fort Myer paddocks would hover around $1 million – a drop in the bucket in terms of military funding, though it does not include the costs for the improvements also needed at Fort Belvoir.
Gut gravel, dusty hay and parasite eggs
Routine diagnostic testing carried out on the Old Guard herd shows many of the horses live with potentially life-threatening health conditions – many of which, equine experts say, are associated with the kinds of living conditions that the Army report details. Although a CNN tour of the stables at Fort Myer showed clean, well-kept stalls, the horses are frequently turned out in groups into small, muddy lots with standing water, excrement and gravel, according to the Army report.
Pastures that are overcrowded and not properly cleared of manure are prime breeding grounds for parasites. And sand colic – the gut impaction that killed Tony, the horse found with 44 pounds of gravel in his gut – often occurs when horses are fed in areas with abundant sand and gravel.
When asked if that amount of sediment is a common finding during a necropsy, Dr. Gabriele Landolt, an assistant professor of equine medicine at Colorado State University’s veterinary college, said, “No, that is a lot. That should not be in the colon.”
After the deaths of the two horses, stool samples collected from 25 of the unit’s horses showed that 80% of the tested horses had “moderate to high levels of sediment in their stool,” according to the report.
“This is a strong indicator of environmental problems,” it said. “Preventative health measures are required to correct identified environmental issues in an effort to prevent further injury colic, and/or death.”
The report assessed that the horses’ risk of death was low but added that such deaths were of “high consequence” and said the kind of gravel seen in Fort Myer’s lower lot “is consistent with the type of gravel discovered in … Tony’s colon on necropsy.”
The second horse, Mickey, died of septic colic, which can be caused by a gastrointestinal illness or injury that has gone untreated, allowing manure or bacteria to make their way into the bloodstream and cause an infection. It was not immediately clear whether sediment in his gut was to blame.
Separate testing, conducted prior to the horse deaths, found that 35% of the herd had “moderate-high” amounts of parasite eggs in their stool, despite being treated twice a year with a dewormer. In a well-managed herd, only a fraction of horses will be moderate to high “egg-shedders,” according to Landolt, who added that a properly controlled herd of about 60 should have only “at the most, probably about five to 10” horses who fall under that category.
The Army report also noted poor-quality hay, stating that the “color is yellow-brown with large amounts of thick stems and few leaves; dry, dusty, and brittle” – hallmark signs of low-nutritional hay.
“The long stems of poorly chewed hay can cause an impaction, or blockage, of food in the intestines, resulting in colic,” said Dr. Joy Tomlinson, a specialist in large-animal internal medicine at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. “This is worse if the quality of hay is poor.”
“Moldy hay has been found during previous veterinary inspections and can lead to respiratory infections, colic, and death,” the report said.
A senior leader at the Old Guard said some short-term fixes were underway, including purchasing mats to place underneath feeders in lots to prevent the horses from accidentally ingesting gravel when they ate hay that had fallen on the ground. The unit has also requested changes to existing feed contracts, including hay testing to identify any shortfalls in the quality of feed coming from their suppliers.
These changes came after the deaths of the two military working horses.
But improvements to the facilities at Fort Myer and Fort Belvoir to address the biggest issues, including the turnout lots and pastures, would be the costliest venture.
“It may take multiple years to fix this,” the senior leader said.
Limited resources and frequent turnover
Roddy, the unit commander, noted that standard leadership turnover in the Army meant that – starting with his own position and going down to the platoon level – officers might be in their positions for only up to about two years, and maybe as little as one.
“None of our tenure here are we going to be able to move the ball down on the road on any major initiative,” he said, adding that generally each Army commander has improvement plans they pass on to the next.
The Army Public Health Command-Atlantic report mentions such plans dating to at least 2017 and in one instance cites “senior leader turnover” as a reason for not accomplishing them.
A senior leader at the Old Guard said they had not been aware of those improvement plans before seeing the report. The leader emphasized the importance of making sure the unit’s next leaders are aware of such plans but could not explain why previous initiatives were not carried out or passed on effectively.
The stables are staffed by 52 soldiers – who receive 10 weeks of training to take on the role – and overseen by a civilian herd manager who monitors the overall health of the horses and does not rotate to new assignments, unlike the soldiers. Many of the Caisson soldiers have never worked with horses before coming to the Old Guard.
The horses also receive care from the Fort Myer veterinarian and a veterinary technician assigned to the stable who is on call “24 hours,” according to the public tour given to CNN in March. The Old Guard leadership also said they maintain relationships with off-post veterinarians for referrals and emergencies.
Roughly half the herd is geriatric – over 20 years old, according to a senior leader at Public Health Command-Atlantic. “In terms of the preventative health measures,” said Landolt, “older horses definitely require a bit more attention.”
The Army report directed much of its criticism to a turnout lot at Fort Myer called “the lower lot,” which the Army inspectors recommended be closed and condemned, citing “significant health hazard … including death.” According to the report, the lot has “18-20 inches of mud and excrement with extensive amounts of gravel and inappropriate grade (slope) of the surface,” rendering the area “extremely unsafe.”
A senior leader at the Old Guard told CNN that the regiment had already closed the lot prior to the report.
Labeled pictures attached to the report showed muddy lots with “significant amount[s] of gravel dispersed throughout the lower lot,” no horse mats under the hay that would “prevent the ingestion of sand/dirt” in the center lot, exposed drainage, “standing water with algae growth,” construction waste such as bricks and asphalt, “inefficient” electrical barriers, hazardous training ground layouts, improper equipment storage, and rotted stalls in the barn.
The report assessed that the pastures at Fort Belvoir were too small for the size of the herd. “The American Association of Equine Practitioners recommends one to two acres per horse2 and the Pasture Facility only consists of six acres,” the report said. “Even at one acre per horse, the current acreage constitutes only 18.8% of the recommended area for equine use.”
Before CNN’s tour, soldiers on horseback were seen practicing pulling a caisson onto the road just outside of the barn. The caisson would normally have a casket on it, draped in an American flag. That day in mid-March the caisson was bare, though the task seemed just as solemn and quiet as it had on the day of the late Sen. Bob Dole’s funeral a month earlier.
Staff Sgt. Brian Roberts, a squad leader in the Caisson Platoon, said his soldiers get to the barn around 4:30 a.m. and are there caring for and training the horses into the evening.
The day CNN toured the barn, soldiers were seen diligently clearing stalls, washing horses, and cleaning excrement and loose hay off the floors.
Roberts’ reply is instant when he’s asked if there is a particular horse he has connected with: Bullseye. Of his more than 600 official rides, 310 have been on Bullseye.
“You never really have a bad day here,” he said.
This story’s headline has been updated to include Arlington National Cemetery’s official terminology.